Ryan Blaney was in tears in May as the crowd chanted “Blaney! Blaney! blaney” after snapping a 59-race losing streak with his win at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
He was so excited at that moment to get back to winning ways and rebuild his confidence after a winless season in 2022. Little did Blaney know at the time that his Coca-Cola 600 win had started his march into the championship race of NASCAR.
Blaney will be vying for his first Cup title after advancing to the decisive championship finale with a victory Sunday at Martinsville Speedway. His third win of the season – tying his career best – put him in next week’s final four at Phoenix Raceway, where he will compete with Kyle Larson, Christopher Bell and William Byron for the Cup championship.
“All you want is a chance at a championship. You get your chance when the playoffs start, if you make them, OK, you have a chance. But your real chance is to get to Phoenix, right?” Blainey said. “It’s nice to have the opportunity to really compete for a championship.
“I don’t think you can ever count anyone else out, any team. It’s about peaking at the right time. Our group does this.
Byron, who led the Cup run with six wins this season, claimed the fourth and final spot in the championship, limping to 13th. Byron had padded his position with bonus points earned throughout the season and moved eight points ahead of Denny Hamlin, who finished third at Martinsville on Sunday, for the NASCAR championship.
Blaney and Byron will compete with Christopher Bell and Kyle Larson next Sunday at Phoenix Raceway, where the Cup championship will go to the driver with the best results.
Larson and Byron gave Hendrick Motorsports a pair of Chevrolets in the Final Four, Bell is in a Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing and Blaney drives a Ford for Team Penske. Blaney can give Roger Penske back-to-back titles after Joey Logano’s win last year.
Larson is the only driver in the field with a Cup title and returns to the final four for the second time in three years. Bell returns to the championship for the second year in a row; Blaney and Byron compete for the Cup title for the first time.
Byron said his helmet fan stopped working during the race and he fell to the ground in front of his car after the race.
“This is our worst race of the year” Byron said. “With 50 (laps) to go I felt really, really bad and I just had to drive the hell out of it. The guys stuck with me and just kept motivating me, little bits and just kept my mind clear.”
Hamlin was almost in a must-win situation on Sunday after a mechanical failure last week caused him to crash and leave him below the cutoff line for elimination at Martinsville. He wasted no time after the win and led a race-record 156 laps.
“I don’t count points. I’m doing my best to win. Everything,” Hamlin called on the radio before the final stage.
But Hamlin lost ground after a final round of pit stops – when he and Blaney each took four tires – and he was never able to claw his way back through traffic to challenge for the win. Hamlin was also eliminated from championship contention at Martinsville last year with a last-lap Hail Mary move by Ross Chastain.
“The mechanical failure last week with the power steering that sealed our fate,” Hamlin said. “Car 12 (Blaney) was the best car today, so congratulations to them. Any final four that made it would be great. I hate that we’re not in it. It’s a competition, right? It’s the playoffs. You have a three race season. Car 12 appeared this round, didn’t it? He deserves to be in the final four.”
Blaney won for the third time this season, tying his career high, and led 145 laps. He won twice in the playoffs, but his victory at the Virginia track was the first for Blaney, who hails from High Point, North Carolina and considers the short track, located 55 miles away, his home track.
“I always wanted to win here. I grew up in High Point, just south of here. I grew up closer to here than Charlotte.” Blainey said. “I used to come here a lot as a kid. I loved watching dad race here. I’ve wanted a grandfather clock for a long time, ever since I was a kid. There are those little special things that you remember.
Martin Truex Jr., the regular-season champion and Sunday’s pole sitter, was eliminated from title contention along with 23XI Racing’s Tyler Reddick, RFK Racing’s Chris Buescher and Hamlin.
Truex finished 12th to cap off what was a terrible playoff for the Gibbs driver. He was flagged for speeding earlier in the race.
“It’s just a fight. I do not know. We put in a hell of a lot of effort.” Truex said. “Really disappointed. This is devastating. It’s a competition. We had bad luck. We’ve had a little bit of everything. Like I said, some years you feel like it’s your year, some years it’s not. I just feel like we couldn’t do anything right.
CHEVROLET WINS THE MANUFACTURER’S TITLE
Chevrolet won its 42nd manufacturers’ championship when Sunday’s race began at Martinsville.
It marked the third year in a row that the title went to the bow tie brigade in NASCAR’s premier Cup series. Chevy has already won both the Truck Series and Xfinity Series championships this season for its fifth appearance in the national series – the first time since 2012 that Chevy won all three national titles.
Chevrolet won its first Manufacturer’s Cup championship in 1958 and later recorded a streak of 13 consecutive titles between 2003 and 2015. Chevrolet has 850 Cup wins and 33 drivers’ championships in NASCAR’s premier series. making it the winningest automaker in NASCAR’s 75-year history.
“This title is the result of the great teamwork of Chevrolet drivers, crew chiefs and teams working tirelessly throughout the season.” said Jim Campbell, General Motors USA vice president of performance and motorsports.
The season-ending championship race at Phoenix Raceway where Larson, Bell, Blaney and Byron will compete for the Cup title. The best finishing driver among the final four claims the championship. Joey Logano won his second title a year ago by beating Phoenix, but was already eliminated from the playoffs. Byron won in Phoenix in the spring.